‘Berlin Had the Better Idea’

In the New York Times, Paul Krugman praises German urbanism:

If Europe’s example is any guide, here are the two secrets of coping with expensive oil: own fuel-efficient cars, and don’t drive them too much.

Notice that I said that cars should be fuel-efficient — not that people should do without cars altogether. In Germany, as in the United States, the vast majority of families own cars (although German households are less likely than their U.S. counterparts to be multiple-car owners).

But the average German car uses about a quarter less gas per mile than the average American car. By and large, the Germans don’t drive itsy-bitsy toy cars, but they do drive modest-sized passenger vehicles rather than S.U.V.’s and pickup trucks….

Greater Atlanta has roughly the same population as Greater Berlin — but Berlin is a city of trains, buses and bikes, while Atlanta is a city of cars, cars and cars.

And in the face of rising oil prices, which have left many Americans stranded in suburbia — utterly dependent on their cars, yet having a hard time affording gas — it’s starting to look as if Berlin had the better idea….

[I]f we’re heading for a prolonged era of scarce, expensive oil, Americans will face increasingly strong incentives to start living like Europeans — maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of our lives.

3 thoughts on “‘Berlin Had the Better Idea’

  1. I don’t think Berlin “had the better idea” – Berlin is just older. By the time its urbanisation began (late 19th century), there were no cars and only very rich people could afford to live in villas at the green outskirts of the city. Atlanta started becoming a big city at a time when the masses could afford to own cars – and housing and infrastructure were conceived for car owners.

    Fuel prizes in America are still modest and only about half of the European level.

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  2. Much of the ‘urban architecture’ depends upon the age of the city, and when the major expansion occurred. The exurbs and most southern cities are particularly badly off as they didn’t really expand until air conditioning was invented – typically from 1950 on. Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Witchita, and many of the Florida cities are examples of this, as is Los Angeles. So the urban architecture is fundamentally built aroung the car in these places – and retrofitting them is going to be expensive and arguably impossible.

    Many of the northern cities have more of a proper urban centre, or at least potentially they do. Baltimore, Philadephia, Boston, San francisco, and New York are examples of this. There are regional differences even here; New York may be able to easily adjust but the exurbs in New Jersey, Long Island, and Connecticut will have a far more wrenching experience doing so.

    Efforts to force the US into international treaties *requiring* the US to fit into a European lifestyle/geography have always fallen afoul of this fact of physical geography. There are supporters of this in the US – predominately located in the more *european* cities like New York and San Francisco of course, because the changes required in these localities will be marginal, not fundamental. Changes in the exurbs and the newer cities which have expanded since 1950 would have to be fundamental – one does not rearrange the geography of a city at the drop of a hat (or of a treaty). In a democracy homeowners typically do not vote to cut their own throats – rather the opposite I think.

    The only thing which will force this kind of change on the US are persistenly high fuel prices extending a decade or more. This alone may force the people of the US out of their detached houses in the exurbs and into city-centre apartments. Probably the shift will occur as younger people discover that they cannot afford the exurban lifestyle. Their elders will probably stay put and pay an enormous price in the value of their housing. There is some evidence that is occuring in California and Florida already – houses requiring a long commute to work are taking the brunt of the fall in house prices. Not exactly a socially desireable outcome, as the lower middle class tends to own these hosues and will disproportionately take the brunt of the impact.

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  3. German cities expanded massively outside of their traditional boundaries into the surrounding rural areas after the war, in the age of the automobile. This is often (derogatively) called Zersiedelung, and the resulting ring of residential areas is known as the Speckgürtel (think “spare tyre” in the body shape sense). I grew up outside of Hamburg, right in the middle of this commuter belt, and if you look at the map of the years immediately after the war and compare it to today, you will hardly recognize the same villages. It is fun, when you go through these settlements, to look out for the “old village” – usually a small ensemble of old farmhouses and some residential houses in the old, moderately ornate North German redbrick style – amidst all the postwar architecture. Sometimes a streetname like “Am Anger” will guide you …

    In any event, these suburbs perform essentially the same function as they would in America, and arose roughly in the same era. They usually show signs of planning (but not large-scale; let’s say ten streets are uniformly named at most). Yet they look nothing like their American counterparts; I’m not quite sure why this is so, but I think the key may be that they weren’t erected in an empty void, but rather as part of existing villages and municipalities.

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